There was an assumption entering 2020 spring training that the battle for the Philadelphia Phillies fifth starter role was going to be a competition between two men.
Vince Velasquez opened camp penciled into that role. The 27-year-old right-hander made 23 starts among 33 appearances in the 2019 season. He has taken the mound as a starting pitcher in 92 regular season games since arriving to the Phillies for the 2016 campaign.
His strongest competition was expected to come from another 27-year-old righty, Nick Pivetta. After opening last season in the rotation as a prime breakout candidate, Pivetta became perhaps the biggest Phillies 2019 disappointment. He ended up making 13 starts among 30 appearances, and has made 71 starts over this three big-league seasons.
If there was a dark-horse left-hander with a shot to beat those two out, it was probably 26-year-old Cole Irvin. He made his big-league debut a year ago, and received three starting opportunities among 16 appearances with the Phillies as a rookie. With 72 career minor league starts, Irvin has filled that role throughout his development in the system.
Most analysts believe that before the 2020 season is out, the club’s top pitching prospect, 23-year-old right-hander Spencer Howard, will be promoted and take over a spot in the Phillies rotation.
Howard has made just 47 minor league starts, not yet pitched above the Double-A level, and was held to just 15 starts last season due to injury. He will almost certainly continue to develop in the minors through at least the month of May. The Phillies would prefer to bring him up after the MLB All-Star break in July.
But early in Grapefruit League play another young left-hander, 24-year-old Ranger Suarez, has emerged as a legitimate rotation possibility.
Suarez signed with the Phillies as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of his native Venezuela way back on April Fool’s Day in 2012. After spending three years pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League, he made his U.S. debut in 2015 at age 19 with the organization’s rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League.
Over the 2016-17 seasons, Suarez took off, rapidly ascending through Williamsport, Lakewood, and Clearwater. By 2018 at just age 22, Suarez made a dozen starts with Double-A Reading and nine at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
On July 26 of that 2018 season, still a month shy of his 23rd birthday, Suarez was called up to make an emergency start with the Phillies. When he took the mound that night at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Suarez put an end to what had become a 267-game streak in which no southpaw had started on the mound for the club.
Against the host Reds, Suarez survived for five mostly solid innings. He allowed six hits and four earned runs, striking out three and walking one batter. The Phillies scored three times in the top of the 1st inning to spot him an early lead.
Eugenio Suarez then got to Suarez for a two-run homer in the bottom of the 1st, but the young lefty settled down and got through the next 2 2/3 frames unscathed before Tucker Barnhart touched him for another two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the 4th inning.
After surrendering a two-out single in the bottom of the 5th inning, Suarez struck out the final batter he faced, Scooter Gennett. He had thrown 75 pitches, 45 for strikes, and left with a 5-4 lead. The Phillies would pull away to a 9-4 victory, earning Suarez his first win in Major League Baseball.
Suarez would get three more shots with the big club that season. The New York Mets beat him up in his next starting opportunity in the first game of an August 16 day-night doubleheader. In late September he made final appearances on the season, one in relief, another a strong three-inning start at home against the Atlanta Braves.
Last season, Suarez spent most of the first three months with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Called up in late June, he would remain with the Phillies for the rest of the 2019 season. Used exclusively as a reliever, Suarez emerged as a surprisingly effective weapon out of manager Gabe Kapler‘s injury-decimated bullpen.
Suarez made 37 appearances with the Phillies last year, going 6-1 with a 3.14 ERA. He got better as the season went along, allowing just one earned run over his final 15 innings with a .222 batting average against.
“I don’t need any fear,” Suarez told Salisbury through translator Diego Ettedgui. “I need outs. And I was able to get them.”
Suarez appears to be taking that fearlessness to the mound once again here in 2020. Over his first two starts the lefty has surrendered five hits over five innings in which he has allowed no earned runs. Suarez has struck out four batters while walking just one.
New manager Joe Girardi has been impressed. On Sunday, Suarez became the first Phillies hurler to go three innings this spring. Salisbury quoted the skipper after his performance: “Efficient. Ground balls. I thought he threw the ball really well. He has command of his fastball on both sides. He threw a slider. He threw his changeup. He can elevate. He did a lot of things.”
Girardi is emphasizing that the players get in their work during these early weeks in Florida. Competition is not being emphasized – yet. But clearly, Suarez has inserted himself into the mix for the starting pitching rotation. If he continues to impress, then Velasquez and Pivetta had best start doing so themselves.
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